This story highlights a current research project at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. To read more about research projects at HBEF, visit Current Research page. Check back regularly to learn about new research projects.
Temporal and spatial variability in the abundance and demography of forest birds: Effects of climate and biotic factors


  Contact Info:
  Nicholas L. Rodenhouse, Wellesley College
T. Scott Sillett, Smithsonian Institution
Richard T. Holmes, Dartmouth College


CLIMATE PATTERNS throughout the world are changing rapidly, as evidenced by increases in average global temperature and in the annual variability of weather conditions. The impacts of these changes on animal populations are not well understood (Rodenhouse 1992, Sillett et al. 2000, Rodenhouse et al. 2008, 2009, Rustad et al. 2012, Groffman et al. 2013). However, they can be assessed through long-term demographic studies that take advantage of temporal and spatial variability in weather across environmental gradients. In this project, we have extended our long-term studies of birds in New England forests (Holmes and Sherry 2001, Sillett and Holmes 2005; see Bird population and community studies at HBEF) in ways that allow us to identify and assess how weather, and ultimately, climate, in combination with biotic factors, affects the spatial distribution, abundance, and demography of bird species that breed in temperate forests.

  Diagram of hypothesized relationships between weather and seasonal fecundity
  Figure 1. Hypothesized direct and indirect relationships between weather and annual fecundity of birds nesting in northern hardwoods forests. Lines indicate causal relationships to be tested; dashed lines indicate potential relationships for which little data currently exists. Potential feedbacks between years, e.g., between breeding productivity in one year and bird abundance in the next are not shown. Each variable can be represented by different measures (e.g., weather by precipitation or temperature).

In 1999, we began to examine these processes through demographic studies of one focal species, the Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens) (Holmes et al. 2005) at a landscape scale -- that of the 3160-ha Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountains, New Hampshire (Doran 2003 Doran and Holmes 2005). The 600 m altitudinal gradient at this site provides the breadth of environmental conditions needed to compare the effects of within- and between-year differences in local weather conditions and biotic factors (e.g., food supply, nest predator abundances) on bird population dynamics and reproductive performance (Townsend et al. 2013, Rodenhouse et al. in prep.).

Our Approach to the Problem

  Food (caterpillar) abundance is quantified by visual searches of foliage  
  Food (caterpillar) abundance is quantified by visual searches of foliage  

Weather can influence bird populations directly or indirectly (Fig. 1). Extreme direct effects of weather include large-scale mortality of adults as a result of catastrophic conditions (see Rodenhouse 1992) and of eggs and young due to exposure, starvation or structural failure of nests (e.g., Rodenhouse and Holmes 1992). For migratory songbirds, mortality of adults due to the direct effects of weather is rare during the breeding season, and instead occurs mostly during migration or as a result of poor wintering conditions (Marra and Holmes 2001, Sillett and Holmes 2002, Holmes 2007). Even so, such non-breeding season mortality can influence the size and age-structure of the breeding population in subsequent summers (Sillett et al. 2000).

Weather can affect bird demography indirectly in a number of ways. For example, it can influence: (1) abundance and availability of food (i.e., arthropods), which influence nestling survival (Sherry and Holmes 1992), the frequency of double-brooding (Rodenhouse & Holmes 1992, Nagy & Holmes 2005), and hence seasonal fecundity (Sillett et al. 2000); (2) settlement patterns and subsequently the spatial distribution of individuals among sites that differ in suitability, (3) synchrony of settling which in turn affects local density and the intensity of density-dependent processes (Sillett & Holmes 2004, 2005), and (4) the abundance and activity of nest predators (Rodenhouse & Holmes 1992). These indirect effects of weather all potentially influence bird breeding success and seasonal fecundity, which in turn influences subsequent recruitment and potentially population size (Sillett et al. 2000, Sillett & Holmes 2005). Yet, the relative importance of weather/climate and biotic variables in determining seasonal fecundity has rarely been examined.

  Study areas at different elevations within the Hubbard Brook valley  
  Study areas at different elevations within the Hubbard Brook valley  

One way to determine the importance of weather and other factors is to examine avian demography along an environmental gradient where weather conditions differ in predictable ways. It is well known that bird species differ in their distributions and abundances over environmental gradients reflecting their responses to climate and associated vegetation changes along those gradients. Altitudinal gradients in particular are useful, because many aspects of avian environments that potentially influence breeding productivity differ with altitude, including temperature, precipitation, windiness, seasonality, vegetation composition and physiognomy, as well as arthropod species composition, richness and abundance. Yet, few studies of birds have examined the demographic consequences of such variation.

In this on-going investigation, we are testing hypotheses concerning the effects of abiotic conditions (e.g., weather) and biotic factors (e.g., population density, food, predators) on bird populations distributed across the 600 m environmental (altitudinal) gradient within the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. The research in progress will help to elucidate ecological mechanisms generating changes in bird distribution, abundance, and seasonal fecundity across an environmental gradient, and thus will contribute to an understanding of how climate in combination with biotic factors influences forest birds. Such information is key to assessing the potential local effects of climate change on bird populations, and ultimately to predicting how these populations and the biological communities of which they are a part will respond in the future to climate-caused environmental change.


The parulid warbler genus Dendroica was officially changed to Setophaga in 2011 (see Chesser et al. 2011. Auk 128:600-613).

Key References

(cited references not listed here can be found in the HBES Publication list)

Doran, P.J. 2003. Intraspecific spatial variation in bird abundance: patterns and processes. Ph.D. thesis, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH.

Doran, P.J. and R.T. Holmes. 2005. Habitat occupancy patterns of a forest dwelling songbird: causes and consequences. Canadian Journal of Zoology 83:1297-1305.

Holmes, R.T. 2007. Understanding population change in migratory songbirds: long-term and experimental studies of Neotropical migrants in breeding and wintering areas. Ibis 149S: 2-13.

Holmes, R.T., T.W. Sherry, P.P. Marra and K.E. Petit. 1992. Multiple-brooding and annual productivity of a Neotropical migrant passerine, the Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens), in an unfragmented temperate forest. Auk 109: 321-333.

Holmes, R.T., P.P. Marra and T.W. Sherry. 1996. Habitat-specific demography of breeding Black-throated Blue Warblers (Dendroica caerulescens): implications for population dynamics. Journal of Animal Ecology 65: 183-195.

Nagy, L.R., and R.T. Holmes. 2005. To double brood or not: Individual variation in reproductive effort inn Black-throated Blue Wa rblers (Dendroica caerulescens). Auk 122: 902-914.

Rodenhouse, N.L. 1992. Potential effects of climate change on a Neotropical migrant landbird. Conservation Biology 6: 263-272.

Rodenhouse, N.L. and R. T. Holmes. 1992. Results of experimental and natural food reductions for breeding Black-throated Blue Warblers. Ecology 73: 357-372.

Rodenhouse, N.L., L.M. Christenson, D. Parry, and L.E. Green. 2009. Climate change effects on native fauna of northeastern forests. Canadian Journal of Forestry Research 39: 249-263.

Rodenhouse, N.L. S.N. Matthews, K.P. McFarland, J.D. Lambert, L.R. Iverson, A. Prasad, T.S. Sillett, and R.T. Holmes. 2008. Potential effects of climate change on birds of the Northeast. Mitig. Adapt. Strat. Global Change 13: 517-540.

Sherry, T.W. and R.T. Holmes. 1992. Population fluctuations in a long-distance Neotropical migrant: demographic evidence for the importance of breeding season events in the American Redstart. Pp. 431-442 in Ecology and Conservation of Neotropical Migrant Landbirds (J.M. Hagan and D. W. Johnston, eds.), Smithsonian Press, Wash. D.C.

Sillett, T.S., and R.T. Holmes. 2002. Variation in survivorship of a migratory songbird throughout its annual cycle. Journal of Animal Ecology 71, 296-308.

Sillett, T.S., R.T. Holmes and T.W. Sherry. 2000. Impacts of a global climate change on the population dynamics of a migratory songbird. Science 288: 2040-2042.

Townsend, A. K., T. S. Sillett, N. K. Lany, S. A. Kaiser, N. L. Rodenhouse, M. S. Webster, and R. T. Holmes. 2013. Warm springs, early lay dates, and double-brooding in a North American migratory songbird, the Black-throated Blue Warbler. PLoS ONE 8(4): e59467. doi:10.1371/

Date Updated: May 2013